Dark storm clouds had rolled in over the Jeweled City, blocking out the moons and the stars, and bringing with them a strong, bitter wind, which blew in from the sea. It did not rain, but sea spray from the violently tossed ocean cut through the air like icy knives. Nishimoto stood near the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped off directly into the churning waters. He would have been chilled to his bones, if he'd had any.
Nishi looked around him in all directions, but saw no sign of anyone, as if any residents would have been stupid enough to be out in the middle of the night in this kind of weather. It was habit for him though, always checking his back. Darkness surrounded him on all sides, but his augmented night vision allowed him to make out nearby houses and the raging water below. After one last check, he dropped down on all six limbs and began to crawl much like an insect.
Upon reaching the cliff edge, a violent updraft greeted him along with a shower of freezing sea spray. Nevertheless, he dug his claws into the hard rock surface and went over the edge, clinging to the ridged cliff face. He climbed head first down the cliff for some distance before vanishing into a small crack just above the tormented sea. Water splashed into the crevice and he could hear the crashing of the waves on the rocks below. Nishimoto flattened himself against the wall of the crack and crawled on, his belly dragging on one side, and his back scraping the other.
After a short distance, the crack opened up into a small tunnel. It still required the Artrell to crawl, but more comfortably so. It was warmer in here, sheltered from the storm, and almost completely dark. Nishimoto continued down the tunnel until it suddenly terminated into a large mineshaft. It looked like it hadn't been used in some time. Hardly pausing for a second, Nishimoto leaped into the air and plummeted straight down the shaft into the darkness below.
He landed with a soft thud in a sizable pile of some soft substance that let off a tremendous cloud of dust upon being so disturbed. Various articles of clothing and personal items comprised this pile and there were old lamps and pickaxe's laying near the walls of the small circular room carved from stone. There were strange glowing spheres lodged in the walls that provided some marginal degree of light. Acting almost on impulse and paying little attention to the frightful décor, he crawled into a small hole near the floor. This tiny tunnel wound left and right, sometimes veering straight up or down.
In numerous places, the tunnel branched off into innumerable other tunnels all of the same size and shape. Nishimoto automatically followed the maze through its twists and turns until the tunnel opened up into another small room with six doorway-sized exits positioned at varying heights and directions on the walls. It was much warmer here. The heat seemed to be coming from the walls. It was also quite humid.
Crawling through one passage only presented an identical room on the other side. Gravity was the only way Nishi could tell up from down. Several doors and a few short tunnels later led Nishimoto into a very large and cavernous room with hundreds of exits branching off from it. For the first time since he started his subterranean trek, Nishimoto stood up. Unlike the previous passages, this room had a floor, which was decorated with large rocks arranged in strange symmetrical patterns. The ceiling was high and the walls were dripping with a thick, mucus-like substance. Several other Artrell moved about the area, some crawling on the walls and ceiling to get to the higher openings. A low hum pulsed through the Hive.
The flickering light of the mysterious glowing spheres in the walls illuminated the chamber with dim light and caused shadows to play, ghostlike on the glossy walls. He looked slowly and carefully around the chamber. Not finding what he was looking for, Nishimoto walked up to a nearby Drone, which was clinging to the wall onto which it was secreting a thick substance from its mouth. When he approached, the Drone stopped working.
"Where is the Queen, Drone?" Nishimoto demanded in the language of the Artrell. Artrexican, as it was called, was a crude language that consisted of humming, buzzing, clicking, and other noises, some not audible to the normal ear.
"The Queen is not in the Hive, Royal Assassin Nishimoto. The Queen is hunting."
Nishi turned quickly, leaving the Drone to its work as he walked back to the center of the large room. Wonderful, he thought. The Queen's hunting trips sometimes lasted for weeks. When the Queen went hunting, it wasn't for food or supplies. Her targets were members of the more intelligent races of Merentha such as elves, and humans. Hunting was not a job for her, as it did nothing to benefit the Hive. She went hunting for the sheer fun of it.
He would have to go find her. Things were moving quickly, the Queen must be informed of the progress. Nishi removed a small satchel from his waist and untied it. Inside were a number of small, colorful stones. All were perfectly round a seemed to glow faintly. Nishimoto selected one that was a dazzling white and returned the others to their place on his waist.
Holding the stone in one of his claws, he threw it straight in front of him. After traveling only a short distance, the stone began to slow in midair and glow brightly. The air around the stone seemed to bend as it continued to slow, distorting objects near it, seeming to lengthen them. With a bright flash, the stone exploded, leaving a strange portal in its place.
The portal was an oval shaped vortex of color. Looking in it, the colors changed shades and intensities, while always spinning inward in a hypnotic spiral. A low-pitched hum filled the air. Nishimoto walked forward and into the kaleidoscopic passage, which quickly swallowed him. Moments later, the portal vanished, leaving the cavern seeming somehow darker than before.
With a bright flash, a portal appeared in the middle of an orchard and Nishimoto stepped through, the portal quickly vanishing behind him. It took him a moment to get his bearing; portal travel could be quite disorienting. The night sky was clear and bright through the trees, which had already lost many of their leaves.
Nishimoto had arrived in similar fashion to this very location many times before. He quickly set off down the rows of trees, trying to make as little noise as possible in the rustling leaves at his feet. A few minutes later, he arrived at the orchard wall and a tall iron gate. Without a second thought, Nishi leaped into the air, sailing easily over the ornate gate, and landing with a faint thump on all six legs.
He stood at the edge of a large avenue traveling north and south. Old but well-kept buildings lined the clean stone street. To the north was a solitary tower that seemed to be made completely of polished black stone and to the south the sea could be seen. The sleeping city of Whitestorm stretched out around him in all directions.
Nishimoto lowered himself closer to the ground, looking carefully up and down the deserted lane. Slowly and soundless he crawled from building to building, staying hidden in the shadows. He continued his stealthy vigil south, always alert for the slightest movement or the faintest noise. After only a short time, the street opened up into a large market square. Staying in the shadows, Nishimoto once again scanned the area.
Uninhabited shops lay all around the edges of the plaza and a marvelous statue stood in the center. Wide boulevards branched off in four directions. Off to the west in the Magic District, bright flashes could be seen even at this hour. Under the statue a small group stood, chatting quietly. Nishimoto counted five, two of which he could see were sporting swords.
Using his two lower arms, Nishi reached around into a pack on his back. From it he removed a garment blacker than the night itself. One could not be certain if the thing really existed. Like a hole in reality, it seemed to suck up the light from all around. It was impossible to look at the cloak, only through it, into an endless void of nothingness. Nishimoto draped the cloak over him and it immediately conformed to his shape, hugging his body until the cloak was almost an extension of it. The black abyss that now surrounded Nishimoto faded away, leaving nothing behind, in effect, making him invisible.
Slowly, being careful to make not a sound, Nishimoto stood up and walked over to the group in the plaza. The cloak seemed to weigh twenty times as much when it was on. If he hadn't had extensive training in using the thing, he might have found it hard to move. From the looks of it, they were all soldiers of some sort as they all wore some type of armor. As he approached, their conversation became more and more audible.
"...so I says to him. I says, 'Listen here, youngin. You best learn some respect, fore summin bad happen. Always watch yer back, ya hear? Ye never know where an assassin may be'a lurkin.' But tha boy just don' listen. I tell ye, all doz hot-headed newbies, they jus don' know their one end from t'other."
The others nodded in agreement. Nishimoto nodded as well, as he lightened the man's money purse. Damn straight. He grinned, slipping the coins into his own pack before setting off down the road to the east, leaving the group none the wiser. Behind him, the conversation trailed off. "I'd never let no assassin get tha drop on me, I tell ye."
The road Nishimoto was on led into the heart of the Merchant District. Large stores stood on both sides of the road. To his left was an immense weapon and supply shop, and to his right were the Bank of Whitestorm and a tailor shop. Ignoring them all together, he continued down the road, secure in his invisibility, but still scouring the street out of habit.
The street was long with many smaller streets branching off of it. He continued down the street into a residential area. Old wooden houses, complete with quaint gardens and yards, lay on both sides. Trees were becoming dense in the yards. Up ahead, he could see the stately East Gates and, beyond them, a dense forest.
A few minutes later, after easily circumventing the gate, Nishimoto found himself on a dirt path that was mostly muddy and washed with leaves. Being safely outside the city, Nishimoto tugged on the cloak to remove it. The fabric struggled against his grasp, trying to maintain its hold on his body, but Nishimoto yanked it off and stowed it away in his pack once more. He felt like a great weight had been lifted from him. The cloak could be stifling at times.
It was very dark under the trees and Nishimoto had trouble seeing, even with his enhanced vision. He wove between trees, drifting on and off the path so as to throw any pursuers he might have somehow picked up. After journeying some distance in this manner, he came to a fairly deep river that cut across the trail. This, he followed north, using the sound of the waters to mask his movements.
The night air was cold, but Nishi ignored it. At least it was better than the storm he had been in earlier. The river wove on as he followed it north. Some time later, the river widened up and ran into a small lake. The waters of the lake were calm and the moons cast shimmering reflections on its placid surface.
Nishimoto narrowed his eyes and scanned the surface of the lake. He stepped forward into the water and continued walking until he was completely submerged. The water was clear, but quite cold. Not daring to break the surface, Nishimoto swam quickly towards the center of the lake. After a short distance he dove straight down. A careful examination of the lake bottom revealed a small cave opening, which Nishi swam into.
He followed an upward-sloping tunnel for a short distance using two hands to find his way in the blackness. Before long, he emerged from the water into a cave. The area was illuminated by a faint blue glow that seemed to be everywhere but come from nowhere at all. The passage was wide, but the ceiling was low and Nishi had to duck to continue on.
Shortly, the cavern opened up into a slightly larger room. Evenly spaced along the room's circular walls were five torches that each burned with a magical blue flame. In the very center of the room was a shallow pool of clear, silvery water. Another bright blue flame burned brightly in the center of the pool. Small ripples in the pool all seemed to be flowing inwards towards the flame.
This was the sacred Pool of Seeing. Nishimoto slowly approached the pool and knelt down on his knees before it. From his pack, he removed a silver medallion with a bright ruby in the center. Queen Loco had given this to him upon his being selected as Royal Assassin. He held the medallion up to his face, then quickly tossed it into the fire in the middle of the pool.
The fire flashed brightly, turning from blue to bright white as it rose above the pool to hover near the ceiling. Inside the fire, the amulet could still be seen. The surface of the pool suddenly became as smooth as polished crystal as flickering light from the fire played over it. The colors swirled, resolving themselves into an image. Nishimoto leaned forward and peered into the pool.
An image of a long hallway appeared in the pool. It was made of pieced together stones and, by the amount of mold growing on everything, was probably quite old. Around the corner at the end of the hallway came a mighty figure. It was a part man, part bull creature that wore a massive breastplate and wielded an ominous-looking mace.
Suddenly, there was a flash of movement behind the creature. It opened its mouth in a mighty bellow, but no sound was heard as it fell forward on its knees and then forward again onto its face. In the back of its neck was lodged a large dagger. Behind the fallen creature, another figure appeared out of nothingness.
It was an Artrell. The figure walked up to the fallen and retrieved its dagger, with which it proceeded to cut off its victim's head. Holding up the head with claws rammed through the face, the Artrell drank of the ruby blood running from the neck before throwing it forcefully back down with the body. Blood splattered up on the walls and on the figure itself. With that, it disappeared once again.
Nishimoto grinned evilly as he stood and grasped the amulet out of the fire. Though the fire was white hot, it felt cool to the touch. When the amulet was removed, the fire faded back to blue and resumed its place on the surface of the pool. The dim blue glow was all that remained.
Having placed the amulet back in his pack, he once again opened his satchel of stones. The catacombs of Minos, he thought to himself. Such a pleasant setting. Selecting a dark blue stone, he tossed it into the air. Once again, the air seemed to bend as a portal formed in the room. Nishimoto replaced his pouch and walked into the swirling vortex.
The sun had already begun its daily journey through the heavens, but, to Cye'Ren, it might as well have been night. The room he was in had no windows, but rather was illuminated by the flickering light of candles that were dispersed throughout the dank confines of the camber. The air was thick, a cacophony of pungent aromas that could almost be seen. The walls of the room were lined with bookcases and there was an ornate marble pedestal standing directly in the center of the room.
He sat on an elevated stool intently studying a large tome that had been placed on the pedestal. His robes were dirty and it looked as if he'd been up all night. He stared wide-eyed at the book, silently muttering to himself and moving his finger across the yellowed page.
Mish-Rak pushed aside the wooden door and walked inside, choking slightly at the stale air. Today he wore not his silver armor, but rather a brown tunic and some rather simple looking slacks. Looking briefly around the room, he walked up to Cye'Ren and laid his hand his shoulder.
"Ah, here you ar-"
As soon as Mish-Rak's hand touched his shoulder, Cye'Ren yelled loudly and spun out of his seat, coming up with a dagger in one hand, bloodshot eyes darting around the room. Upon seeing Mish-Rak, with a very startled look on his face, he slowly lowed the weapon.
"Oh. Mish-Rak. It is only you," he said with a sigh, slightly embarrassed. "What are you doing here so late this night?" He walked briskly back over to his seat and stood directly in front of the pedestal, blocking Mish-Rak's view of the tome.
Mish-Rak cocked his head slightly. "It is already morning," he said, noticing Cye'Ren's red and baggy eyes. "Have you been up here all night?"
Cye'Ren raised an eyebrow. "Morning? Already?" He frowned and looked around the room. "Yes. I suppose I have." Smiling as he shrugged, Cye'Ren motioned to the stack of books beside him. "Sometimes I can just get caught up in my studies." He paused. "So. What brings you here?"
"I looked for you in your quarters, but when I found them empty I assumed you were here. I thought perhaps you were now ready to propose your plan to Simoriah."
"Ah...yes. My plan," he said slowly, looking at the wooden floor and nodding his head.
"I myself have been thinking on it a bit and I believe it has a good chance of working. I also wanted to apologize for my attitude last night, I wasn't thinking clearly. I saw the Queen just a moment ago in the gardens. If you are ready, I would be glad to accompany you."
"Yes...indeed. My studies can wait. Now would be a good time to talk to her." He paused, walking forward to Mish-Rak, the two turned and walked toward the half open door. "But first, could you tell me of any weaknesses in the plan, I want it to make a good impression."
"Of course," Mish-Rak said, grinning with many sharp teeth. "As I said, I've been thinking on it a bit..."
The two walked out the door and into a large emerald hallway. Light from several high windows streaked in and onto the green tile floor. Tapestries hung from the walls and suits of armor guarded each side of the hallway like tireless sentinels. Mish-Rak ushered Cye'Ren out into the hall and turned to close the door. Inside, it was dark, and wisps of vapor played in the candlelight over the empty pedestal.
"Now. First of all..." the two walked slowly down the corridor and around a corner out of sight.